NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Post 125 Commander Mitchel Keil hopes to reinvigorate the American Legion in step with its traditions and rich history in the community.
"Everybody seems to be on board so far," Keil said. "Coming from the people who've been running it for years, too. The members are just excited to see it be it a little more exciting around here."
Marine Cpl. Keil served from 2006 to 2010 and was deployed to Afghanistan. Upon returning home, Post 125 became an important place for him.
"For me, it brought back that camaraderie I have not been able to find anywhere else. That is how it helped me," he said.
At 34, he is the youngest active member of the Legion post.
He became part of the leadership structure and eventually was talked into becoming commander in early 2020.
"I started going to meetings, and the way the meetings were going there were only so many people interested. So some of the guys asked me to try this, then that. Then they say, 'well, you did all that, now it is time to do this,'" he laughed. "I never pictured doing this."
His ascendance to commander came quickly. He went from helping out during Veterans Day ceremonies to becoming master of ceremonies.
He took on these duties right in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, which escalated an already challenging time for Post 125, which had seen its numbers drop significantly.
"We were coming out of COVID, and I was worried about making sure we were staying open. Even before COVID, before the pandemic, I wouldn't say we were in a panic, but the building was for sale," he said. "When I was taking over it was on the market so then you're making a huge decision. I don't want to come in as commander and then lose the building."
It came to the point where there was talk of leasing a portion of the building to a cannabis retail operation, but that is no longer the building's destiny.
Keil said this had unleashed his inner "fundraising beast," and he immediately tried to drum up some different donation opportunities that continue to this day. He networked with surrounding posts and tapped them for ideas.
Keil was happy to say, through the community support, things have stabilized.
"Going to the community and they helped us keep the doors open … so right now this is going to work. When the building was on the market our membership was very vocal about that," he said. "That is not happening now."
But there are still challenges to maintaining stability. As an organization, active membership has decreased. At one time there were 900 active members. Now it is closer to 225.
This is the case throughout the country.
This isn't discouraging to Keil, who believes a younger generation is starting to show interest in the Legion, one of the most welcoming places in the city, according to Keil.
He said the idea that American Legions are unwelcoming places is a total misconception. In fact, they are like any other gathering space that has fostered a tight-knit community.
"It happens everywhere. The door opens and everyone looks to see who it is …you have to be ready to break the ice," he said. "I was just in New York …and went to three different Legions. Everyone did the turn and look. I gave them a wave and said, 'what's up?' You start talking to someone and it is like you have been there every day."
Speaking more to Post 125, many of the regulars have interesting lives and can weave a captivating story. He said anyone crossing the threshold would find someone to connect with whether they want to talk about military experiences, their careers, or growing up in North Adams.
"It is not hard to talk to these people. That is how they suckered me in," he laughed. "These people accept with open arms."
Keil added that much of the challenge is changing misconceptions noting that many veterans only attend the various ceremonies such as Veterans Day and Memorial Day.
He said a lot of veterans, unfortunately, see the Legion as a group of old men and really only make it out to various ceremonies they feel obligated to attend. Keil felt it was so much more than that.
"They only see what their local post is doing or, I hate to say it, they see a group of old men," he said. "They have to get passed that and realize there is a lot going on especially at the national level through the American Legion."
He added that he continues to network with surrounding posts to enhance the interconnectivity throughout the state and region.
Keil is finding that new members are slowly coming in and seeing the opportunities the American Legion provides. He said not only can veterans find that oh-so-important comradery, but opportunities to help each other.
One of their younger members is exploring a therapy dog program while others are continuing to organize the cornerstone events that are fundamental to area veterans, for example. While some members are jumping with both feet, others are easing their way in, which Keil said is perfectly fine.
"We have one member who was still in the service when he got married. He married somebody local, and they had the reception here," he said. "Now they live locally, and I have gotten him to start going to meetings. I just want to build that. A lot of people feel like they are going to be rushed into something."
He said Legion meetings are open to all members including Sons of the American Legion and the Auxiliary. He was excited that they are starting an American Legion Riders Chapter as well.
Part of Keil's approach is to physically update the post home, which hasn't seen a major renovation since the 1980s. However, these cosmetic changes need to be accepted by a membership that ranges from ages 24 to 90
"You have 70 years of personalities," he said. "And a lot has changed, a lot of tastes have changed."
Keil sees the importance of the space and wants veterans to feel like it is their own. He pointed to the freshly painted lounge area with newly installed booths. The wall space above each booth is now filling up with pictures of local veterans.
Many of the alcohol advertisements and lights have been removed and replaced by historical pictures he dug out of storage.
Keil indicated that much of his work is just getting organized and sorting through generations of photos, documents, memorabilia, and even blueprints. He felt many of these "treasures" make more sense on the wall than a commemorative Budweiser sign.
A picture of Frank R. Stiles, after whom the building is named, now sits at the entrance of the post. A large American flag and the POW/MIA table are now the first things visible upon entering the bar.
Keil has also placed panels containing contact information for Legion leadership and hopes to place portraits of past commanders on a wall more visibly in the bar area.
Keil also wants to keep things recent and has taken down plaques and awards that are decades old.
"It is about putting things up that make sense. One of my biggest goals is to not have anything out in this area that isn't from the past decade," he said. "We don't want to lose that history with the awards and all of the stuff we have done so a lot of this will go in the meeting room. "
The post is also a business and Keil wants it to remain a welcoming place for the public.
"Updating the lounge has gotten people out of the bar area," he said. "That is one of my biggest things to remind people. This is a community place in a place for veterans. Not the cheapest bar in town."
He hopes to redo the lighting in the lounge with dimmers to allow for more privacy and eventually redo the women's room.
"Yeah, a lot of people have come up to us about the lady's room. I hate to say it but as a veterans organization we are mostly male-dominated," he said. "But everyone comes in here and we have spouses and auxiliary members and more and more female veterans. That is a huge priority."
As for the community meeting room, Keil understands its importance as the only affordable place in the city for people to gather.
"What we want to do in here is remind the community that we're part of the community," he said.
He hopes to update this space as well with new photos of historical sites in the city.
"We want to have old photos of the Civil War monument, the Hoosac Tunnel, things like that and put them next to recent ones," he said.
Keil hopes to paint the exterior of the building this spring and eventually build out some green space that would allow for outdoor seating. He said he also wants to commission a mural on the building.
Also giving back to the community, Keil said Post 125 plans to reinstate the American Legion Baseball League and is holding a cash calendar fundraiser to lower the application cost.
Keil believes these traditional ceremonies are essential to the American Legion and plans to bring in new ones. This includes the Four Chaplains Ceremony that was held for the first time in Western Mass earlier this month.
But Keil understands the balance and realizes that younger veterans bond in different ways.
"The traditions, absolutely we still need that stuff, and I want to introduce all of that to a new generation but on the other hand, well for example, this past year at a national convention they had a full setup of videogames for younger veterans," he said. "They were showing the older veterans how to play."
It is a generational shift. While veterans who served in the 1970s and '80s may want to meet at the post and play pool, younger veterans may wish to play "Call of Duty" or "Madden."
"They told the older veterans 'this is what we do, this is how we bond,'" he said. "And this group will come to your Legion and set it up. I would love to have tournaments."
On the technology front, Keil uses social media to promote events such as their popular meat raffles. He relies on analytics to see who he is reaching. During the interview, he was handed documents to promote on social media.
He realizes social media and computers are daunting for a lot of older veterans and hopes to help familiarize them. And he wants to set up a few computers in the post specifically to help veterans through the Legion training program that will allow them to attend different national events.
Keil is proud of his work and thankful that the membership trusts him. He is looking toward the future with new ideas and new goals to strengthen the bond of the veteran community in North Adams.
"There are a lot of big things we want to do as well as more immediate things," he said. "It is all a balance and there is so much opportunity. But I am very thankful for all of the help and trust of the membership."
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Local Recovery Documentary to Premiere
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The public is invited to "Blueprint: Building the Foundation for Recovery," a new documentary featuring real stories of recovery in the Berkshires.
The film is followed by a community conversation led by local experts including Dr. Jennifer Michaels from The Brien Center, Sarah DeJesus from BHS's Berkshire Harm Reduction, community members from the education field, emergency management, and individuals with lived experience.
The two film premieres are the capstone events for the HEALing Communities Study (HCS). Wednesday, Dec. 13 at 7:00 pm at the MCLA Church Street Center in North Adams and Thursday, Dec. 14 at 7:00 pm at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield.
During the past 18 months, local partners from the harm reduction, treatment, and recovery communities have collaborated on a shared goal of reducing opioid overdoses. Over 30 partners from across the Berkshires joined together in the HEALing Communities Study to increase naloxone distribution, raise awareness of all pathways to treatment and recovery, and reduce stigma around substance use disorder.
Blueprint is a new documentary from Outpost Studios weaving together stories from our community with local behavioral health experts. George Cox and iin Purwanti of Outpost Studios have interviewed over a dozen community members for the feature, with original music by local artist Matt Cusson.